Ethiopia’s Sacred Forests Are Shrinking. Can He Save Them?


Alemayehu Wassie’s strategy for saving Ethiopia’s church forests is built on conservation, education and expansion.

By Addison Nugent (OZY)

Growing up in the South Gondar region of Ethiopia, Alemayehu Wassie went to church every Sunday. Sure, it’s a familiar weekly ritual for Christians the world over, but Wassie’s trip from home to pew was quite different from the sleepy morning drive, fueled by coffee and doughnuts, known to many Westerners. That’s because Alemayehu, a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, would trail dust from the spent soil of the surrounding populated areas through an ancient and sacred forest to reach his parish.

“You always pass through these forests appreciating nature, appreciating God’s gift,” Alemayehu says over shoddy cellphone service from Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia. “They are also burial sites, so they are the beginning of your life and also where you are going to end. Emotionally, when you go to these forests, you always feel your loved ones and your ancestry.” Ancestry that could extend as far back as A.D. 34 in a country that’s home to some of the world’s first Christians — the earliest Ethiopian conversion is recorded in the Bible itself (Acts 8:26-27).

Raised under the weight of that religious history, it was not until later in life that Alemayehu, now 46, discovered what he believes is even more significant — and more urgent — about Ethiopia’s sacred forests: ecological conservation. Peppered throughout a landscape that’s slowly been decimated by centuries of agricultural and urban development, these forests — numbering around 12,000 — act as natural barriers to continued erosion and a source of life-giving water and biodiversity. But they are facing the twin threats of continued encroachment and a younger population that’s disconnected from the church and unmoved by the potential loss of these hallowed grounds (they once occupied 329,000 square miles — a figure that, as of 2016, had dropped to below 28,000).

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